Saturday, November 06, 2004

Position by Position: the 2005 Free Agent Market III

Second Base:

As we continue in the wading our way through the major league free agent list, we come to 2nd base - ostensibly the weakest position on the market. Unlike every other position, there isn't a true superstar available to teams this season. There are, however, quite a few very solid players that almost any team in the league could use.

The rankings:

1. Jeff Kent (age 37 next season) - Don't let anyone tell you he's not the best second baseman available on the free agent market. Still a force in the middle of the lineup, Kent has kept his slugging percentage over .500 for the last seven years, while always hitting above .289. And the two issues that usually plague an older player - durability and defense - haven't affected this 36-year old second baseman yet. He's been able to play 130+ games a year, and MGL has him #2 at +5 runs above average in the NL for defense using UZR which goes along well with his rankings over the past 4 years (from 2000-2003 at +4 runs per 150 games). Kent isn't a good long-term investment, but if a team (like the Yankees) need a second baseman who can fill in for the next 2 years, Kent fits the profile perfectly. I'd expect his power and average to decline a bit, but Kent could hit at the tune of .280/.350/.480 next year.

2. Placido Polanco (age 29) - Spots 2-5 are extremely tough, as Polanco, Todd Walker, Mark Bellhorn, and Mark Grudzielanek all post similar numbers. The only reasons Polanco gets the nod at number 2 here are because of his defense and age. MGL's UZR has Polanco as one of the best defensive 2nd baseman in the league - and it also rates his defense at 3rd base top-tier. At age 29, Polanco's not a good bet to break out, but he's posted similar lines the past two years:

Year Ag  G  AB   R    H   2B  3B  HR   RBI  SB  CS  BB  SO   BA   OBP  SLG

2003 27 122 492 87 142 30 3 14 63 14 2 42 38 .289 .352 .447
2004 28 126 503 74 150 21 0 17 55 7 4 27 39 .298 .345 .441

While .290/.350/.445 looks good - Polanco will never really take that many walks, and he's not a sure bet to hit with power. In full-time action in St. Louis at ages 25 and 26, Polanco never slugged above .400, and even now he's not hitting that many doubles - telling me that he doesn't hit the ball hard all that often. He's a definite gamble, hasn't been able to play a full season in the last two years because of injuries, and in my mind won't hit as well as he did the last two years - but his defense is so good that it more than makes up for any offensive shortcomings he'll have. I'd project a .290/.340/.420 line for him next year.

3. Mark Bellhorn (age 30) - One of the bigger surprises this year, Bellhorn followed up his horrendous 2003 season with a solid campaign, taking 88 walks and posting a beautiful .373 OBP. I don't think anyone can characterize Bellhorn as an above-average defensive 2nd baseman, and there aren't many accurate numbers on him. From what I've seen, his range is adequate, and he plays very well around the bag at 2nd - turning the double play well. The last three years, Bellhorn also grounded into only 17 double plays in his last 1456 PAs. Compare that to Walker - 28 in 1746 PAs - or Grudzielanek - 36 in 1375 PAs - and you can see how many less outs Bellhorn was responsible for. I'd project the switch-hitting Bellhorn to hit .260/.370/.450, right about where he left off last season.

4. Todd Walker (age 32) - Stinks at defense. You can see it on the field - UZR has him at -9 runs coming into 2004, and his range can only get worse. Still, you know you're going to get a .270/.340/.440 out of him, and he's a solid lefthanded batter.

5. Mark Grudzielanek (age 35) - Another incredibly boring player. I could probably right a dissertation on whether the Cubs should keep Walker over Grudzielanek (or vice-versa), but they'll both produce about the same net results in the end. Walker's younger and hits for more power and has an easier name to spell, while Grudz... plays marginally better defense and hits for a higher average. Whatever.

Also on the list of free agents is Roberto Alomar along with Pokey Reese and then a pile of crap. Alomar stinks at defense right now, and is a huge gamble who's gotten pretty old. Reese is a solid defensive 2nd baseman and SS, who will never ever be able to swing a bat correctly.

A Fit with the Royals? - Well, you can usually find good utilitymen out of the mix of 2nd basemen, but we've already got a good utilityman in Tony Graffanino. Unfortunately, he's starting at 2nd base for us, so we'll probably have to carry another utility player on the team. It's doubtful the Royals will take a long look at any of these players, and will probably fill the UT spot with a minor-league free agent or Mendy Lopez or Wilton Guerrero or someone who stinks like that. Hopefully Graffanino can slug better than .335 next season.

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